Practical virtue ethics

The last stage of the labouring society, the society of job holders, demands of its members a sheer automatic functioning, as though individual life had actually been submerged in the over-all life process of the species and the only active decision still required of the individual were to let go, so to speak, to abandon his individuality, the still individually sensed pain and trouble of living, and acquiesce in a dazed, ‘tranquillised’, functional type of behaviour.
– Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition

The problem we face

In the western world, most people are locked into thirteen years of standardised schooling, three or more years of university and then forty years of the 9 to 5 grind. It is unsurprising that many feel lost and dissatisfied, unhappy to be a cog in the machine. Modernity is having a function but no purpose. Myriad self-help books attest to our desperate need for meaning, however the prevalence of depression, suicide, substance abuse and other social ills suggests that finding meaning, purpose and contentedness in the modern world is the great struggle of our lives.

Some of this angst can be attributed to the receding influence of Christianity in the west. Since the Enlightenment, Darwin and Nietzsche’s ‘death of God’, religion has held a less and less important role in the lives of most. Whatever the harms of religion, it did serve as a social cohesive and gave many a sense of higher purpose. Now Christianity is dominated by Bible-literalism and fundamentalists, making it inaccessible to a sceptical population brought up in a post-Darwinian world. The problem is that nothing has really filled the void, except the endless distractions of escapist media and the day-to-day minutiae. I do not believe that society can return to religion as a source of meaning: faith in a benevolent god as in the Bible is simply untenable. However, society’s inability to provide a sense of purpose to young and old alike is such a serious, underlying problem that we need alternatives.

These are not uniquely modern problems. Since the first philosophers, one of the great questions has been “how should I live”. In a secular, rational world, I think that we need to look to philosophers not prophets to answer this question. Fortunately, three thousand years of philosophy has produced many answers. Ethics falls into four broad categories: virtue, duty, utilitarian and pragmatist. Of these, I believe the first (and, arguably, the oldest) is best. I will therefore discuss how and why to lead a virtuous life.

Happiness comes from expressing what we have rationally decided is good for us over the long term. Happiness is not pleasure, but the by-product of a meaningful life… A life of mere pleasure, since it deprives us of rational, purposeful activity, will not make us happy.
– Aristotle

Ethics for the modern world

The dominant ethical philosophy of the past hundred years has been utilitarianism. The maxim of ‘greatest good for the greatest number’, as espoused by Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, is a pillar of democracy and often guides public and private action. However, the fact is that most people or governments are not willing to live by the radical imperative that pure utilitarianism provides. Peter Singer demonstrates this. The reason for this is not a lack of will or other personal failing, but that utilitarianism is too inhuman a doctrine around which to base our all-too-human lives. We are not robots, or ants. Expecting us to behave as such is sure to fail.

Perhaps implicitly recognising this problem of pure utilitarianism, many economists, governments and public thinkers have taken up maximising happiness as the objective of policy. This has clear appeal. After all, what good is a policy if it does not make people happier? Surveys often come up with figures on how happy people are, and what the relationship between happiness and wealth is. Today, money buys happiness (Financial Times, 4/9/15), yesterday it’s the Easterlin Paradox — tomorrow, who knows. And thus illustrates a problem with considering happiness an end, and with hedonic calculus in general: it’s awfully difficult to decide what happiness is, let alone objectively measure it, let alone work out what will make people happy. With unsurprising banality, a new social science study will conclude that sunshine, or pets, or spending time with family, or feeling harmony with one’s environment make you happy. An aspiring social engineer will then decide the magic formula is more public parks and a 10% increase in mandatory lunch hours.

All of this focus on happiness, and particularly attempts at its quantification, is nonsense. Happiness is inherently subjective and unquantifiable. More importantly, it should not be considered an objective. Yes, being happy is nice. But happiness is a transient, shallow thing when interpreted as something that we experience, like pleasure. Seeking happiness is a fool’s errand because it fails to recognise that happiness is a by-product of leading a meaningful life, and not the meaning itself. Further, the obsession over happiness ignores the importance of unhappiness, of suffering, as a formative part of our character.

This leads us to virtue ethics, which I consider to be ethics for the modern world and the impetus to lead an errant life. I believe that virtue ethics is the most human, most inspirational philosophy one can live by. Further, I think that it is an approachable, practical philosophy.

We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.
– Aristotle

What is virtue ethics?

Virtue ethics is most closely associated with Aristotle. Basically, it answers the question of ‘how should I live?’ with ‘virtuously’. There are many virtues, all of which must be practised in balance: prudence, temperance, justice, courage, patience, diligence, charity, humility. Virtue ethics holds that we should each live as to consciously and consistently cultivate virtue such that virtue becomes our nature. The ‘goal’ or outcome of virtue ethics is eudaimonia, which is usually translated as ‘flourishing’ and ‘well-being’. To live virtuously is to lead a complete, balanced life. A successful, eudaimonic person is stable in her cultivation of virtue such that, whatever the situation in which she finds herself, her actions will be virtuous. By making virtue a habit at the very core of her being, goodness will come naturally and without difficulty. This is in contrast to the difficulty of determining the utility-optimising course of action for every decision. It is also in contrast to seeking happiness as an end in itself because it recognises that life will have its ups and downs, so we must develop our character that we may do the right thing regardless.

What does it mean to cultivate virtue? Aristotle’s ethical system is based on his belief in the rationality of human beings. Acting rationally does not mean simply gratifying our urges and impulses as “people seeking a life of gratification are no better than grazing animals”. A flourishing life must satisfy our rationality. The cultivation of virtue is a rational pursuit; Aristotle argues that virtue is not a trait with which we are born, but something that can be learned. Learning virtue is not simple, either. It takes conscious effort and diligence until it becomes habit.

The distinction between man and animal runs right through the human species itself: only the best (aristoi), who constantly prove themselves the best, and who prefer immortal fame to mortal things are really human; the others, content with natural, temporal pleasures, live and die like animals.
– Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition

Build your life around virtue

If you are serious about living virtuously, it makes sense to try and maximise your chances of success by building your life around virtue. Aristotle does not advocate a life of hermetic solitude. Instead, he points out that a complete life requires combining action with virtue. An important element to virtue ethics is called phronesis, or practical wisdom. This implies a life of action, not just thought.

For Aristotle, the most effective way to better oneself is to work for the betterment of friends and community. Virtue ethics may seem like a very self-centred philosophy, concerned solely with personal excellence. While it is definitely more personal than utilitarianism, it is worth remembering that many virtues only exist in relation to other people – for example, kindness, charity and justice. Virtue ethics implies acting on the public stage.

Arendt therefore considers the turning inward of modern society a barrier to virtue. The home is the focal point – we have become consumers, not actors or creators. Social media provides an illusion of connectedness, while our interest in politics is only as entertainment to be consumed, rather than a stage upon which to act. While Arendt’s distinction between man and animal in the quote above may appear elitist, I believe that she is correct. All the great people throughout history, be they saints or scientists, soldiers or explorers or politicians, have valued things greater than themselves, greater than “temporal pleasures”. Living solely in pursuit of the temporal is a resignation to mediocrity.

If you ask someone what they value, they will say a number of things. However, a truer understanding of what they value will come from examining how they live their life. If someone claims to value their family and community, but spends eighty hours a week working as a banker and can only spare one afternoon per fortnight for family time is being dishonest with themselves. They may value their family, but clearly not as much as they value their work, or their salary, or whatever they buy with their salary. Likewise, if someone says that they love reading, but spends far more time watching TV than reading, then we can surmise that their actual preference is TV. This is the idea of revealed preference. What people do is a far better indicator of what they value than anything else.

Understanding revealed preference is vital to living a life consistent with one’s values. Our values are what we do. We can delude ourselves, but essentially everything comes down to priorities. Fortunately, we can choose our priorities. However, simply saying something is a priority itself means little. Therefore, we must spend our time and effort on virtue if that is something we value.

Let’s assume that you work in an office for forty hours a week. Aside from sleep, work is probably that single biggest use of your time. For many, it is 40 out of 148 hours per week. If you sleep eight hours per night, then work accounts for almost 50% of your waking hours each week. Deduct time for eating and essential chores and a revealed-preference analysis of your life will suggest that you value working more than anything else in your life (sleep notwithstanding). After all, how can you do something for most of your waking life and seriously contend that it isn’t your number 1 priority? Yet few people will admit this. They will point out that they need money to buy food, pay the rent, pay for childcare or school fees.

The fact is, temporal concerns always seem pressing. The great people of history also needed to eat and to sleep. Beyond those necessities, they were able to realise their greatness because they prioritised ends beyond themselves.

Be virtuous: lead an errant life

Virtue ethics is the best philosophy for modern society because now more than ever before we have the capacity to free ourselves from the temporal grind. For most affluent westerners, we no longer need to spend our lives in toil that we may have food on the table. Free from the hunger and hardship that has plagued our forebears since the beginning of time, we truly can be actors on the public stage, in pursuit of immortal fame and the betterment of self and society. It is simply a matter of priorities.

Conforming to social standards of how to live is a choice. You can choose to conform, you can choose not to. An errant life is one that deviates from the standard course. If you truly value virtue, value having meaning and purpose in your life, you must dare to err.

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